President Barack Obama on Friday honored the memories of those slain in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against Nazis, telling one elderly man that the memorial was a "reminder of the nightmare" of the Holocaust in which millions of Jews were killed.
In the final phase of his European trip, the president greeted Holocaust survivors and leaders of Poland's Jewish community at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. He smiled, shook hands and hugged those gathered under a light rain, including some who shared memories of having met Obama at earlier times.
"What a wonderful visit. I'll have to bring my daughters," Obama said as he exited the memorial. The monument in the former Jewish ghetto commemorates the tens of thousands of Jews killed in a 1943 uprising against the Nazis during Germany's brutal occupation of Poland during World War II.
Most of the insurgents in that uprising were killed, but the event bears great importance in Jewish history as an example of Jews bravely taking up arms, albeit against the odds, to defend themselves against the Nazis. It's also a key memorial in a country that before the Holocaust was home to Europe's largest Jewish community.
Among those Obama met was Halina Szpilman, the widow of Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Holocaust survivor featured in Roman Polanski's Oscar-winning film "The Pianist." Obama kissed Szpilman, a retired doctor who lost her husband in 2000, on both cheeks.
A leading member of the Jewish communist, Monika Krawczyk, was heard urging Obama to do all he can to support Israel, saying: "It's the only Jewish state we have." Obama assured her that the United States would be there for Israel.
Obama arrived in Warsaw on a cool and cloudy Friday evening, hoping to inject some vigor into a relationship with an ally that has sometimes felt slighted by Washington.
His primary business of the night was a dinner with Central and Eastern European Union leaders. The president intended to emphasize how their experiences with democracy could offer real-life lessons to those seeking freedoms across North Africa and the Middle East.
Upon arrival, Obama helped place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dedicated to all unidentified soldiers who have given their lives to Poland in past wars. Obama shook hands and chatted warmly with elderly veterans in uniform who had fought Nazi Germany during World War II, including at least one woman. Several of them saluted him. He also greeted younger soldiers and veterans who have served in NATO's mission in Afghanistan.
The president then headed to the presidential palace for dinner, to be followed on Saturday by meetings and a news conference before his return to Washington.
Obama did not come bearing the news Polish officials wanted: access to a visa waiver program for those travelling to the United States. Obama aides said he would provide officials a status update on the effort but was not in position yet to offer more.
Hours before Obama's arrival, Polish headlines were dominated by news that he was being snubbed by legendary Solidarity founder Lech Walesa, who said he was refusing to meet with Obama.
Solidarity was a national freedom movement under Walesa's leadership in the 1980s that helped bring down communism. His courage in defying communist authorities at the time earned him a Nobel Peace Prize.
Walesa said in televised remarks that President Bronislaw Komorowski and the U.S. ambassador to Poland had called him hoping to persuade him to meet Obama. Walesa insisted, however, that he had no interest in a meeting that would amount to little more than a photo-op.
"This time a meeting does not suit me," the 67-year-old former president said in comments on news station TVN24. His office said he planned instead to attend a biblical festival in Italy.
Walesa refused to divulge more, but it seemed possible he was offended at not being offered a one-on-one meeting with Obama early on. Walesa had been invited to meet with Obama along with other former leaders of the anti-communist movement and current party leaders.
Obama will hold two days of political meetings focusing on security, energy and joint U.S.-Polish efforts to promote democracy in North Africa, Belarus and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
But unlike past U.S. presidents who visited this nation of 38 million, Obama will not meet or address the Polish public directly. That deprives him of the chance to connect directly — and emotionally — with Poles in the way former presidents such as George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton did on visits to the country.
Friday's dinner will be with about 20 Central and Eastern European leaders holding a yearly summit. However, the inclusion of Kosovo's president has caused a diplomatic wrinkle, prompting Serbia and Romania to boycott the event in protest. Neither one recognizes the independence of the former Serbian province.
Obama's trip will also feature bilateral talks that will focus on security issues. Defence Minister Bogdan Klich said the two countries would discuss a plan for Washington to station F-16 fighter jets and Hercules planes in Poland on a rotational basis starting in 2013.
Perhaps most importantly, the trip offers a chance for Washington to stress to Poles that it considers the relationship important — a message U.S. officials have made an effort to stress.
Poles have felt in past years that both the administrations of George W. Bush and of Obama have neglected their concerns, and traditionally strong pro-American sentiments are in decline compared with the early years after the fall of communism. At that time, Washington was seen as both a model of democracy that helped end the Cold War and as Poland's main guarantor of security in a region where Russia still throws its weight around.
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